Like the rest of the country, I woke up on Wednesday March 17th to the terrible news of a mass shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people. Six were Asian women aged 44 to 74 years. I immediately went numb. Lulu Wang, the Sino-American filmmaker and director of The good bye, gave voice to my pain on social media: “I know these women. Those who work their way to the bone to send their children to school and send money home. “
The fact is, I’ve been in a state of numbness for much of the past year. In addition to the unprecedented burdens COVID-19 puts on all of us, Asian Americans like me have had to grapple with skyrocketing rates of discrimination, verbal abuse, and physical violence. We have been beaten, pushed, stabbed, spat on, told the pandemic is our fault, we brought it to this country and we should go back wherever we come from. Our most vulnerable people – women, young people and the elderly – are disproportionately affected.
Racial Trauma and Fear on the News
The relentless drumbeat of headlines and viral videos depicting unprovoked violence against Asian Americans contributes to vicarious trauma, even to those who are not directly targeted. Fearing for the safety of my parents, both in their seventies in Virginia, I called home last March to warn them not to go outside too much, always shop in daylight, and be very careful. My heart broke when I thought of her deeply felt belief in the goodness and possibility of this land, which motivated her immigration here almost 50 years ago. And it broke again two weeks ago when my mom told me a teenager yelled at her with a racist charge.
As a psychiatrist and director of the non-profit, volunteer-run MGH Center for Intercultural Emotional Wellbeing for Students, I am well aware that Asian Americans struggled with mental health problems long before COVID-19. We have been stereotypical as a “Model Minority” since the 1960s: a uniformly successful group that shut up and doesn’t rock the boat. This stereotype intersects seamlessly with cultural values that value stoicism and self-sacrifice, and heavily stigmatize anything that is perceived as shameful – including mental health struggles. Asian Americans are two to three times less likely than whites to seek mental health treatment and are less likely to find available services helpful. Our research shows that college students from Asia, America, and the Pacific Rim (AAPI) are about half as likely as white students to have a psychiatric diagnosis such as anxiety or depression – possibly because they have never seen a psychologist – but nearly 40 % more likely to have attempted suicide.
To that burden, we now add racial trauma – the mental and emotional hurt caused by racial discrimination. As the psychologist Robert Carter has described, racial trauma makes the world feel less secure and remains in the psyche long after the incident has ended. Victims report anxiety, hypervigilance (a state of heightened vigilance), avoidance of situations reminding them of the attack, poor sleep, mood swings, and numbness. These symptoms mirror the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Words can and actually hurt us, as opposed to a childhood rhyme – sometimes even more than sticks and stones.
The weight of racism in the past and present
Time and again, events from this pandemic have shown that being an exemplary minority is not enough – AAPI doctors and nurses have been attacked, even by patients they care for. What I didn’t learn from my parents during my childhood or from my high school history curriculum is that anti-Asian racism is nothing new. it is woven into the fabric of this land.
Looking back teaches us a lot. Fear of Chinese workers taking American jobs in the mid-19th century heightened the persecution and caricature of Chinese and Asians as “yellow danger,” sick, indecent and treacherous. In 1871, a 500-strong mob slaughtered, mutilated and hanged 20 Chinese men in Los Angeles during one of the deadliest lynching incidents in US history. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the only law prohibiting a particular ethnic or national group from immigrating to the United States and naturalizing as a citizen. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that forced more than 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps – over 60% of whom were US citizens. The hatred we see now reflects this earlier reluctance of Asians as sick invaders and disloyal, eternal aliens.
Another perspective on the myth of the model minority
I see the Model Minority label in a different light now. Who could blame Asian Americans for taking on what appears to be a more positive reputation given the pervasive discrimination they have faced? But this stereotype is both harmful and wrong. It obscures the significant differences and challenges faced by the extraordinarily diverse AAPI community, which has the greatest income inequality of any racial group in the United States. And it encourages policy makers to overlook our problems. Most insidiously, it provides a divisive contrast to other minorities, blaming them for their problems and upholding the fiction that there is no such thing as structural racism. In addition, we are now seeing how quickly the model minority stereotype is returning to the Yellow Peril.
Will the racism we experienced during this pandemic be a turning point in the racist awakening of our community? Our center can witness a new hunger among AAPI parents for education and resources to help them talk about race and racism with their children. More and more members of our community are organizing, becoming politically active and talking about cases of hatred that have not previously been reported. It’s been a long time since we broke our silence and spoke out against AAPI hatred, yes, but also that we proudly stand in solidarity with other marginalized groups against violence and oppression in all its forms.